Cli­mate shifts, moder­nity and gov­ern­men­tal ne­glect af­fect­ing Mon­go­lian tra­di­tions


It was an­other harsh win­ter on the cen­tral Mon­go­lian steppe, with tem­per­a­tures drop­ping to -45 C and thick snow cov­er­ing the rolling grass­lands. More than a mil­lion cat­tle, sheep and goats, al­ready weak­ened by a dry sum­mer, died, while no­mads’ pre­cious horses froze to death on their feet.

“It was very hard, and the snow was deep,” said 38-year-old herder Nyam­dorj Tu­mur­sanaa, drink­ing milky tea in the no­mads’ tra­di­tional cir­cu­lar tent-like home known as a ger. “Even if the an­i­mals dug through the snow, there was no grass un­der­neath. We had to buy grass for them, but still many of our an­i­mals died.”

Here on the cen­tral Asian steppe, the an­cient home of Genghis Khan and his Mon­gol horde, the no­mads are brought up tough. Yet their an­cient life­style is un­der threat as never be­fore. Global cli­mate change com­bined with lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment mis­man­age­ment, govern­ment ne­glect and the lure of the mod­ern world has cre­ated a toxic cock­tail.

Every year, thou­sands more herders aban­don their way of life and head for Mon­go­lia’s crowded cap­i­tal, Ulaan­baatar, which al­ready holds half the na­tion’s pop­u­la­tion.

The no­madic cul­ture is the essence of what it is to be a Mon­go­lian, but this is a coun­try in dra­matic and sud­den tran­si­tion: from a Soviet-style one-party state and com­mand econ­omy to a chaotic democ­racy and free mar­ket econ­omy, and from an en­tirely no­madic cul­ture to a mod­ern, ur­ban life­style.

Cli­mate change is a ma­jor cul­prit, and Mon­go­lia, land­locked and far from the mod­er­at­ing ef­fects of the ocean, is suf­fer­ing more than most parts of the world.

At the best of times, this is a frag­ile cli­mate, with lit­tle rain­fall and huge vari­a­tions in tem­per­a­ture, which is why this vast ter­ri­tory sup­ports a pop­u­la­tion of only three mil­lion peo­ple, mak­ing it the world’s most sparsely pop­u­lated coun­try.

Now, govern­ment fig­ures show av­er­age tem­per­a­tures have risen by about 2.2 de­grees Cel­sius since sys­tem­atic records be­gan in 1940 — well above the global av­er­age rise of about 0.85 de­grees Cel­sius since 1880.

Sum­mers, when most of the rain­fall oc­curs, have be­come drier, and “ex­treme cli­mate events” have be­come more fre­quent, says Purev­jav Gom­bolu­udev, head of cli­mate re­search at Mon­go­lia’s In­for­ma­tion and Re­search In­sti­tute of Me­te­o­rol­ogy, Hy­drol­ogy and En­vi­ron­ment.

On the grass­lands out­side the small town of Altanbulag, 47-yearold Banzragch Bat­bold and his wife, Al­tan­tuya, re­mem­ber how streams used to run off every moun­tain in their youth, how horses would dive into a lo­cal pond to cool off in the sum­mer. “Now all that wa­ter is gone,” she said. Hun­dreds of rivers, lakes and springs have dried up across the coun­try, the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry says. As the wa­ter re­treats, the desert ad­vances. Roughly three-quar­ters of Mon­go­lia’s land is de­graded or suf­fer­ing de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, with about a quarter se­ri­ously af­fected, said Damdin Dag­vadorj, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Cli­mate Change and De­vel­op­ment Academy.

But Mon­go­lia’s mis­man­aged twin tran­si­tions are also to blame. In the Soviet era, Mon­go­lia, a satel­lite state, kept no­madism un­der tight con­trol. An­i­mals were kept un­der col­lec­tive own­er­ship, but their num­bers were lim­ited, while the state sup­plied vet­eri­nary ser­vices, win­ter fod­der and a guar­an­teed mar­ket.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union dis­in­te­grated, Mon­go­lia threw off its one-party state and be­came a democ­racy. Three years later, it be­gan pri­va­tiz­ing the herds. What fol­lowed was a huge ex­pan­sion in an­i­mal num­bers as in­di­vid­ual herders val­ued their worth by how much live­stock they held. State sup­port si­mul­ta­ne­ously van­ished al­most overnight. To­day, 66 mil­lion live­stock roam the Mon­go­lian steppe, nearly three times the 23 mil­lion cap main­tained in the com­mu­nist era. Over­graz­ing is a ma­jor cause of pas­ture­land degra­da­tion, es­pe­cially by the vo­ra­cious goats whose num­bers have ex­ploded to sup­ply the valu­able trade in cash­mere. At the same time, the govern­ment has failed to ex­tend ed­u­ca­tion, health care and vet­eri­nary care to re­mote herd­ing com­mu­ni­ties, says Ulam­ba­yar Tun­galag of the Saruul Khuduu En­vi­ron­men­tal Re­search Cen­ter. “There is no in­cen­tive to stay in ru­ral ar­eas,” she said.

Herders may have so­lar pan­els, smart­phones and tele­vi­sions, but life isn’t get­ting any eas­ier. Fam­i­lies are sep­a­rated for much of the year as chil­dren head for board­ing schools in the near­est towns, some­times with moth­ers tag­ging along.

In the win­ter, Al­tan­tuya stays, get­ting up at first light to dig frozen cow pats out of the snow to build a fire, with Bat­bold head­ing out to pro­tect the an­i­mals from wolves, wind and snow.

“In the win­ter, peo­ple get lonely,” he ad­mit­ted. “You can’t go any­where. You have TV now, but your chil­dren are in school. The women go crazy, and the men drink vodka.” The cou­ple’s chil­dren are be­ing ed­u­cated in Ulaan­baatar. Nei­ther child has ex­pressed any de­sire to fol­low in their par­ents’ foot­steps. “No one wants to be a no­mad,” Bat­bold said. “When I’m old, and if I am not able to ride, there will be no one left to look af­ter the steppe.” Quentin Moreau, coun­try di­rec­tor for AVSF (Agronomists and Vet­eri­nar­i­ans With­out Bor­ders), a French non-profit sup­port­ing small­holder farm­ing, says no in­vest­ment is be­ing made to make herders’ lives eas­ier. Projects to pro­mote qual­ity over quantity — for ex­am­ple, by re­ward­ing herders with higher prices for bet­ter-qual­ity cash­mere — are too small-scale to make a dif­fer­ence, and govern­ment plans to pro­mote in­ten­sive farm­ing make no sense on the wa­ter-starved grass­lands, he says. Moreau fears an ac­cel­er­a­tion of the ru­ral ex­o­dus — to the point where the sys­tem of vil­lages and towns serv­ing herders is no longer sus­tain­able. What few so­cial ser­vices that are avail­able could dis­ap­pear en­tirely.

Yet the lure of the cap­i­tal of­ten proves to be a mi­rage.

A cen­tury ago, the town that is now Ulaan­baatar was lit­tle more than a trad­ing post and a monastery. To­day, it is a sprawl­ing mess of 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple, half liv­ing in Soviet-style apart­ments, half in the sprawl­ing, un­planned “ger dis­tricts” where peo­ple have pitched their homes on the hills sur­round­ing the city. Mon­go­lians are a peo­ple deeply con­nected to na­ture, who call their coun­try the Land of the Eter­nal Blue Sky.

But their cap­i­tal has be­come the land of chok­ing smog, as ger dwellers burn coal to ward off the cold. Res­i­dents of ger dis­tricts lack ac­cess to run­ning wa­ter, while jobs for ru­ral mi­grants are few and poorly paid — a watch­man, a cook, a driver per­haps. Many peo­ple lack the skills to suc­ceed here. Dur­ing festivals and im­por­tant events, politi­cians like to don na­tional cos­tume — the herders’ calflength tu­nic, or deel — but are do­ing noth­ing to pro­tect the source of that cul­ture, Tun­galag said. Mean­while, in ur­ban so­ci­ety, herders are of­ten stig­ma­tized, their life­styles looked down upon. “No­body un­der­stands that ac­tu­ally Mon­go­lian iden­tity — be­ing a no­madic per­son, be­ing close to na­ture — is be­ing lost,” Tun­galag said.

No one wants to be a no­mad. When I’m old, an­difIam­not able to ride, there will be no one left to look af­ter the steppe.


There are few in­cen­tives for herders like Banzragch Bat­bold and his wife, Al­tan­tuya, to re­main in the re­mote com­mu­ni­ties of their na­tive Mon­go­lia.

Herder Nyam­dor­jiin Tu­mur­sanaa, 38, seen sit­ting in his tra­di­tional ger, has had his life­style threat­ened in re­cent years.

Chil­dren walk home af­ter col­lect­ing wa­ter in a dis­trict in Ulaan­baatar.

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